Saturday, June 25, 2016

'Warcraft' review

It may not be the best movie to hit theaters this year, but Duncan Jones' Warcraft has certainly been one of the most interesting on so many levels. To start, the film is doing extraordinarily well in China, grossing $204.4 million to date and breaking several records in the process. Despite a sky-high budget, Warcraft could truly end up being one of the first global hits that outright flops in the US. But in my view, the most interesting thing about this movie is how it has become one of the prime examples of the growing divide between fans and the film community. In a year dominated by some of the ugliest fandom debates we've ever seen, the adaptation of Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft game series has ignited a firestorm of "debate" between critics and hardcore fans. Journalists have been lambasted for not having enough knowledge of the intricate WoW universe, which has prompted detractors to cite the borderline incomprehensible story, poor character work, and the general lack of energy and fun in the film.

The noise around Warcraft was deafening for a few weeks back at the start of June. Critics of the film were relentless and it was a little jarring to see "F" reviews for what seemed like one of the most promising original blockbusters of the year. And on the other side of things, hysterical fan comments, breaking down every obscure detail of the universe, were nearly ubiquitous. As for myself, I had been a doubter of this film for a very long time. I hated nearly every trailer that Universal and Legendary had released and I could not manage to muster up any excitement. So with expectations in the toilet, atrocious reviews, and crazy fan comments, I was sorta dreading this film. And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was surprised by how much fun I had with Warcraft. Every problem that critics have listed off against it is valid to some extent. But thanks to the directorial eye of Duncan Jones, the fast-paced (albeit, a little insane) story, and the bone-crunching action, Warcraft ends up being a decently entertaining ride.

One of the biggest complaints waged against Warcraft is the idea that it's too hard to understand if you're not coming in with a heavy knowledge of the universe- essentially a version of insider baseball for fantasy nerds. I found the story decently easy to understand, although it certainly feels like the filmmakers left a lot unexplained. The basic plot goes something like this. The world of the orcs is dying. Their land is desolate, barren, and unable to sustain life. But thanks to the magic of the powerful Gul'dan (Daniel Wu), the orcs are able to take a portal to another planet, which just so happens to be the land of Azeroth. Led by Gul'dan and the powerful chieftan Durotan (Toby Kebbell), the orcs set up camp on Azeroth and prepare to overtake the human's planet.

This immediately alarms King Llane (Dominic Cooper), who summons his most powerful warrior, Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), to investigate the arrival of the orcs. Meanwhile, a young magician named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) arrives in the kingdom to warn the king that the orcs are using an ancient magic known as the Fel, which has not been seen for a very long time. Llane and Lothar decide that the only option is to summon the Guardian Medivh (Ben Foster), who is the most powerful man in the kingdom. Despite their best efforts, war breaks out in Azeroth and the power of the Fel becomes too much to control. With the help of half-orc, half-human Garona (Paula Patton) and the assistance of Durotan, Llane and Lothar will fight to maintain peace in the kingdom.

I've probably missed some aspect of the mythology in that synopsis, but the basic gist of Warcraft is rather simple. Humans. Orcs. Magicians. War. The End. That's pretty much how it goes. Despite a multi-layered universe, the story in this film isn't all that complex. However, it's very easy to understand why so many people are utterly perplexed. As I walked out, I heard a man exclaim, "That was just all fighting and I never had any idea who was on what side." And this is an incredibly true statement. Warcraft squanders its simple, universal story by turning it into a twisting, turning saga with different groups coming together to fight for unknown reasons. There were plenty of times during the film where I asked myself- why is this happening?

Part of the blame can be placed on the screenplay's treatment of the characters. Because while their respective motivations are all decently set up, we simply don't know much about them. I'm gonna point towards Red Letter Media's Plinkett reviews again here because in this case, it's very applicable to a core problem in Warcraft. In their review of Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace, the lack of an outsider protagonist is pointed to as a fatal flaw in the film. While watching Warcraft, this soundbite came ringing back into my head. In this wacky universe, all of the characters almost speak their own language. They all seem to know what they're talking about, but I guarantee that most general audiences members will be totally lost. As the number of characters increase and the stories seem to add up, it becomes overbearing to a certain extent.

The actors don't necessarily do the film many favors. The performances range from serviceable to hammy, failing to create any characters that emerge as especially memorable. Travis Fimmel has a smarmy roguishness as Lothar, but I can't say that I actually believed his performance in any way shape or form, especially when the drama with his son became prominent in the plot. Toby Kebbell brings an emotional gravitas to Durotan, with an exceptional performance in the early goings. Unfortunately, Durotan slowly fades to the background and the pathos disappears. Ben Schnetzer's Khadgar emerges as one of the more likable people in the film, but Dominic Cooper is practically invisible as Llane. And finally, I still have yet to discover the purpose of Paula Patton's Garona in this film. She has nothing to do, and the performance is a strange blend of goofy and self-serious.

Nonetheless, what Warcraft lacks in narrative cohesion and characterization, it makes up for in utter strangeness. I don't think I've ever seen a summer blockbuster that is this extreme in its absurd weirdness. Magicians that evolve into giant green demons, gigantic clay monsters, violent orc smackdowns, crazy portals, insane battle sequences- Warcraft has it all and then some. There were quite a few times where I sat back amazed, wondering how Duncan Jones ever fit all of this nerdiness into one massive, epic movie. The film's rampant weirdness filled me with a sense of glee and I fully embraced every aspect of this vision. I went in expecting the high fantasy tone to turn me off, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself having a good time.

But Warcraft isn't good because it's weird. In fact, despite my enjoyment of it, I still wouldn't say that it's an objectively good film at all. The plot is simple, yet somehow convoluted, the characters are thin, and Jones ultimately isn't able to put all of the wacky elements together into a successful film. And yet, the filmmakers still put on a hell of a show. The action scenes are big, intense, and epic, delivering exactly what you're looking for in this type of movie. The effects are gorgeous and immersive, enhanced by the use of IMAX 3D. And overall, the entertainment value of Warcraft is very high. A trip into the world of Azeroth delivers the kind of strange escapism that we don't see too much of these days.

So yeah, Warcraft is a bit of a mess. Even the film's strongest supporters would have to acknowledge that. Duncan Jones isn't quite able to juggle all of the ingredients that were needed to bring Azeroth to the big screen, and the result is a film that is rushed and sometimes highly convoluted. But despite those flaws, Warcraft feels like the work of a singular visionary, a director devoted to delivering something bold, unique, and unlike anything we've seen in the summer movie season so far. It's a far cry from Lord of the Rings, but it's highly entertaining nonetheless. I'm a sucker for wacky fantasy and sci-fi stories, and Warcraft hit me right in that sweet spot.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.9/10)

Image Credits: VarietyForbesTelegraphJoblo, Joblo

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